PTC LiveWorx: IoT is Getting Real

There is obviously a great deal of hype around “Internet of Things” (IoT) technologies.  Ever the realist I am determined to sort through the IoT hype and find out what is really happening in the world of Enterprise IoT.  Since PTC/ ThingWorx is rapidly becoming the Big Gorilla in the market for IoT platforms LiveWorx was a great forum for engaging with the major players in the industry and networking with early adopters of Enterprise IoT.

I was not disappointed.

Initial Impression 

I went into LiveWorx with no other agenda than to take it all in and keep my finger on the pulse of the industry.  The focus of the conference was almost exclusively on enterprise IT infrastructure; application development tools, IoT platforms, wireless communications solutions, and analytics. This is all the “Stuff” that needs to be in place before you can start connecting your “Things”.  After spending time walking around the Expo floor and speaking with attendees the phrase that kept coming to mind was “This is where the grown ups go to talk about IoT.”

At first I spoke with several of the ThingWorx partners/vendors in attendance.  As can be expected it can be hard to get beyond the sales pitch in this type of environment but I found most did a decent job.  In my opinion the guys at Stream Technologies did the best job at telling me what they did (abstract wireless connectivity for ThingWorx applications…got it) and the value the provide to the customer.

What really got my attention was the genuine interest from several Fortune 500 executives in attendance including some heavy hitters from the manufacturing and healthcare sectors. These folks were engaged, listening intently to the presentations and networking with peers during breaks. This is a very good sign for the emerging Enterprise/Industrial IoT market.

Flashback to the 1990’s

As much as the emerging IoT market reminds me of the birth of enterprise middleware in the late 1990’s, what really surprised me was that the vernacular de jour goes back even further.  I cannot remember hearing the term “client/server” spoken so much in the past fifteen years. While speaking with a few gentleman of similar experience in enterprise IT (translation: longer than we care to remember) over lunch and we all came to the same conclusion; it’s all been done before. While some of the names may have changed the core architectures are fairly similar. What IoT brings to this world is (hopefully) simplified enterprise integration, the flexibility to dynamically scale, distribute, and manage applications across what I expect to be hybrid cloud environments, and ubiquitous communications that make it easier than ever to reach out an touch sensors and gateways at the network edge. Toss in mobile devices and a variety of lightweight operating systems for good measure and your on your way. In a way similar to the move to the three-tiered architecture of web based applications, IoT represents a paradigm shift in how applications are developed and how data is collected and analyzed. Identifying the business case for adopting IoT is the easy part.  Ultimately it will be the ability to abstract the “newish” stuff from developers and turning data into value that will determine the rate of adoption of IoT in the enterprise.

It’s about the data, stupid

Understandably analytics was on the mind of just about everyone at LiveWorx. The real benefit from an enterprise IoT implementation will come from the ability to harness sensor data and turn in it into actionable information close to the source. The fact is that the massive amount of data currently available to enterprise organizations is severely underutilized.  The combination of IoT architectures and advanced analytics can make it significantly easier to extract value from the data that companies spend so much to produce.

There were a handful of analytics software vendors in the expo center but company that impressed me the most was Parstream with their Geo-Distributed Edge analytics server. By moving analytics processing close to the edge (e.g. a remote manufacturing facility) you can better manage your network bandwidth and virtually eliminate latency. It is going to be interesting to see where PTC’s newest analytics acquisition Coldlight fits as ThingWorx implementations continue to grow.

What’s Old is New Again…Again

In the early days of client/server architectures there was no such thing as “integration”. To share data across applications we would use shared databases.  One or more application(s) would push data into a shared database. Other systems might then query a joined database tables to pull shared data into its own realm.  Fast forward twenty-five years and we have a cloud based data service exchange like  Message oriented middleware is now a cloud based asynchronous integration engine.  Analytics dashboards that were once only available to Sr. Executives (who rarely used them) are now available to a much broader collection of users, but the concept is still the same.  As Y2K brought Mainframe COBOL developers out of retirement IoT will keep individuals that have been down this path in high demand for many years to come.

Security and Standards

For obvious reasons security is a major concern. When you consider the myriad of device types, operating systems, and wireless communications platforms involved this will be particularly challenging. Where should security be implemented? The device? The network? The platform? The app? All of the above? It is going to be a while before this is sorted out but I do not believe this will hold up pilot projects.  However, a robust standards security model will be absolutely essential to the growth of the IoT market.

On the flip side there did not appear to be any concerns about the myriad of IoT standards currently being develop by groups such as the Industrial Internet Consortium. If IoT plays out like the enterprise middleware market in the early 2000’s then the market will select a de facto standard and eventually all of the industry leaders will get on board.

Missed Opportunities

While there was genuine interest from end user companies there was also genuine concern. Big companies make safe buying decisions. When you consider that a healthcare equipment manufacture would have to make a large commitment to integrate IoT capabilities into their products long before they can leverage that investment they want to make damn sure the vendor they select will be there to support them for the life of their products. The trouble is that in emerging markets it’s the small nimble startups that develop the innovative solutions.  Catch 22.

This best way to address the concerns of the customers is to work through larger integrators (Accenture, CSC, etc.) who can not only help identify the visionary customers willing to step into the world of IoT but also provide a security blanket so if the startup goes under.  Unfortunately there was a dearth of integrators in attendance and is an area I would suggest PTC work to address for next years LiveWorx. Missed opportunity for sure.

I was also a bit surprised by what I saw as mixed messages from some of the keynote presentations. The rapid application development video/demo drove home the message that application development could be done much faster at a cost well below current industry norms. In contrast, the message conveyed during the “Rise of Connected Products” presentation was that companies needed to hire a Chief IoT Officer and create an IoT group out of a cost center…and your already falling behind your competition. That is a pretty tough sell for attendees to take back to their respective organizations and I’m pretty sure that message did not go over so well with the LiveWorx audience.

The “Woz”

I would be remiss if I did not point out that one of the featured speakers at LiveWorx was none other than Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (aka Woz). Rumor has it (ok, I Googled it) that Woz’s speaking fee is $50,000 which hints at the value PTC places on customer engagement.  It wasn’t necessary but it was very cool and much appreciated.

In Summary

LiveWorx was a refreshing change from the typical conference where the speaking slots are thinly veiled promotional events for the companies that have the biggest booths on the expo floor. Nothing fancy, no dramatic trade booths, and not a ton of hype.  It was just a bunch of experienced IT industry professionals looking at how emerging technology can help improve their business operations to either save or make money.

Good stuff, I’ll be back next year.